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County OKs $23.5M budget with PILT

Jul 11, 2012 - By Martin Reed, Staff Writer

Benefiting from a higher assessed valuation and $1.3 million in federal funding, Fremont County Commissioners on Tuesday approved their new budget with spending at about the previous year's level.

Commissioners approved a general fund spending plan worth about $23.5 million covering day-to-day operations including the Sheriff's Office, transportation and road department, and various other county government agencies.

Including about $10 million in cash reserve account and $950,000 in the transportation department's inventory, the total general fund is worth about $34.4 million.

The total county government budget that includes fund balances and revenues as well as the full 12 mills assessed for property taxes is worth roughly $39.5 million. The amount covers the library, fair, museum and recreation departments.

PILT money approved

Commissioners this week heard the federal government's payment in lieu of taxes, known as PILT, would contribute $1.3 million this year to their coffers.

Additionally, Fremont County Assessor Tara Berg said the overall assessed valuation jumped to $1.016 billion from the previous amount of $990 million, adding revenue derived from property taxes.

"The oil sales were up; that's what helped it," Berg said about the increase.

This year's approval from commissioners came with warnings about difficult times projected in the following year or two due to questions about PILT funding and an expected drop in assessed valuation with lower natural gas prices.

Concerning PILT funding, commission vice chairman Pat Hickerson said it "seems quite clear it's going to be very difficult for governments to get it."

County Treasurer Scott Harnsberger remained optimistic about the federal funding after a conference call with state and federal officials recently.

"I don't know that we're going to be down on PILT next year," Harnsberger said, noting decreases in other federal funding sources likely ensuring the revenue stream.

The commission's proposed budget included an assumption of $1 million in PILT funding that remained questionable at the 11th hour, drawing criticism from some on the board.

"That's not a good way to do budgets," commissioner Travis Becker said.

Becker said he prefers in future budgets "not accounting for it as operational costs." He proposed using the money for infrastructure or other capital projects "because of the uncertainty with it."

5 percent target

Commissioners earlier this year in the budget planning process asked their department managers to propose a 5 percent decrease in their spending, but the requested cut did not make it into the final plan with the anticipation of PILT.

Becker said the 5 percent decrease "next year more than likely will not be an exercise. It will be a reality."

"It's a pretty good exercise" in efficiency and evaluation of spending, Hickerson said. "That's part of our job, to make sure our county government runs that way."

Harnsberger warned the effect of cutting 5 percent will be a decrease in services to citizens. Commissioners can tell department leaders not to cut services, "and that's just not going to happen," he said.

"That's true, but it'd be up to each elected official," Becker said. "If they feel it's in their interest to cut a service, then that's their priority."

'800-pound gorillas'

Commissioners indicated a desire to continue budget talks with department heads in preparation for next year's spending plan.

"There's a lot of 800-pound gorillas out there that are eating our lunch," Becker said about spending growth in areas including the employee health insurance plan.

Hickerson expressed dismay about the health insurance plan. "I'm a little disappointed where we ended up this year because I don't think we made any progress making it fairer to the employees" with the county continuing to pay 90 percent of the costs, he said.

"We provide a large portion of insurance for the whole family," Hickerson said, noting some companies do not provide health insurance for their employees. "It's really a budget buster."

Commissioners decided to ease proposed cuts to some social services groups and the Riverton Regional Airport. After hearing concerns from Riverton public services director and airport manager Bill Urbigkit about a proposed 50 percent cut, commissioners decided to provide 95 percent of the requested amount.

Commissioners cut spending on most social services programs by 5 percent, but they decided to commit the fully requested amounts for programs asking for $10,000 or less.

Commission Dennis Christensen made the suggestion, noting the 5 percent cut for those nine budgets that include some senior citizen centers would save the county less than $2,500.

Commissioner Keja Whiteman did not attend due to an injury, while board chairman Doug Thompson was absent because of a commitment with another government meeting.

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